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Self-Checkout Could Soon Be Checking Out


Personally, I like self-checkout at the supermarket, but Nick Fountain of our Planet Money podcast thinks otherwise. He says it's kind of a pain. It only reads barcodes if you position them just so, he says. It doesn't get fresh produce right for him. When something goes wrong - and I'll agree it's true - you have to wait for a store employee to help you out. In any case, Nick Fountain set out to find out why checkout by yourself is so tricky.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: To find out, we're going to go shopping...


FOUNTAIN: ...At a Wal-Mart in Toronto with the guy who invented self-checkout, Howard Schneider. Schneider is trying to buy some red bell peppers.


FOUNTAIN: The pepper doesn't have one of those little stickers with the number and the barcode on it, so he tries finding red bell pepper on that little touchscreen.

So you're scrolling through the pages looking for the right thing.

SCHNEIDER: No red peppers.

FOUNTAIN: Schneider is getting kind of frustrated.

SCHNEIDER: It doesn't even say what to do, so then you're stuck here right now.

FOUNTAIN: Eventually someone from Wal-Mart comes by, types in the code for the red bell peppers. But Schneider - he's still frustrated.

COMPUTER GENERATED VOICE #2: Your total is one.

FOUNTAIN: It's not like Schneider doesn't realize how hard of a problem it is. Back in the late '80s when he was building the first self-checkout machine, he was an ER doctor helping psychiatric patients. And he realized working as a supermarket cashier is a really complicated job cognitively.

SCHNEIDER: Supermarkets are messy environments. You have things without barcodes. You have produce. You have people trying to steal things. People are saying give me this. Make change. Do this.

FOUNTAIN: One of the hardest things to deal with - something a person can do really well but a computer cannot is detect theft. Schneider figures, OK, I know how to solve this.

SCHNEIDER: Do what the human does. Use vision. It's very useful having a visual image of what's going on.

FOUNTAIN: He sticks a big security camera over the machine, but he doesn't want to rely on that.

SCHNEIDER: Another useful property is weight.

FOUNTAIN: Schneider puts a scale under the bagging area. That way, people don't put stuff in their bags that they haven't scanned. But Schneider's machines were first installed in 1992, and since then, self-checkout hasn't gotten that much better. Why is that?

To find out, I called Dusty Lutz. He works at NCR. That's the corporation formerly known as National Cash Register. He's been thinking about the future of supermarkets for a long time - so long he was actually in the room that thought up the phrase unexpected item in bagging area.

DUSTY LUTZ: I remember very clearly the day we actually came up with that because we were trying to figure out, how do we communicate that you might be stealing something but you might not be stealing something? So how do we communicate that? And there were many, many things like stop, thief; don't steal this from us.

FOUNTAIN: Lutz says that balance of keeping thieves from stealing and honest people from going crazy is one of the biggest problems with self-checkout. He says they're close to solving that. For one, now cameras can figure out when thieves are saying they're buying onions but are actually buying avocados. And in some stores, instead of yelling at you, the machines just use this little sound.

LUTZ: (Imitating sound) So that the folks that are actually trying to game the system - we let them know that we've noticed it. But for the folks that are just doing their normal shopping, it's not at all accusatory.

SCHNEIDER: But really Lutz says the solution is not better self-checkout. Something supermarkets are trying right now is giving people these little scanners to put on their carts. Scan as you go, they call it. All you have to do at checkout is pay. But this doesn't completely solve the theft problem.

People can still drop stuff in their carts without scanning it, so supermarkets are doing random audits kind of like the IRS. There is a bolder idea that Lutz is working on - a store with a bunch of cameras that knows when you take an item off the shelf and charges you for it.

LUTZ: You walk in the store. You pick up your items. You walk out.

FOUNTAIN: It's like self-checkout is just this blip in human history. The future of self-checkout is no checkout at all. Nick Fountain, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Fountain produces and reports for Planet Money. Since he joined the team in 2015, he's reported stories on pears, black pepper, ice cream, chicken, and hot dogs (twice). Come to think of it, he reports on food a whole lot. But he's also driven the world's longest yard sale, uncovered the secretive group that controls international mail, and told the story of a crazy patent scheme that involved an acting Attorney General.

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